Monthly Archives: January 2010

Cunningham Dax Collection

There are several galleries devoted to the work of outsider artists, most notably the Art Brut Gallery in Switzerland and Melbourne’s Cunningham Dax Collection. I hadn’t been to the Cunningham Dax Collection before but it is one of the few galleries that are open in the first week of 2010. Most of Melbourne’s galleries are closed for a couple of weeks over the New Year period; except for some big public galleries, like the National Gallery of Victoria. The collection is named after its founder Dr Eric Cunningham Dax who in 1946 pioneered the place of art therapy in mainstream psychiatric treatment.

Above the purple entrance doors, there is the gallery sign and slogan: “art, creativity and education in mental health”. Inside the Cunningham Dax Collection there are two large gallery rooms, a small side gallery, a video lounge and a large room containing a library, research area and office. The collection itself consists of over 12,000 works, held in a climate controlled storage room.

I didn’t see the main collection, just the current temporary exhibition. Out of the Dark: the Emotional Legacy of the Holocaust is an exhibition of artwork by survivors, child survivors and the children of survivors of the Holocaust. The Cunningham Dax Collections proposes a multi-dimensional approach to their collection as a clinical record, art, historical artefact and education material as opposed to “objects of curiosity and amusement”. This is not outsider art as it is traditionally defined but creative work of people who have experienced mental illness and trauma. There are some quality works of art in the exhibition along with others were better viewed as clinical records or historical artefacts, but regardless of the quality of the work in the exhibition there was a unity of shared of trauma. Trauma shared across generations is the well documented by this exhibition.

Some of the works on exhibition are by trained artists. There is a great surreal photograph by Hedy Ritterman, who was the winner of the Linden Gallery’s 2003 Hocking Stuart Award. And the central work by Michelle Fox, “People I should have known or should have known more” 2009, a mixed media installation, was a playful, child-like response to trauma. Fox’s installation reminds the viewer of play is a thoughtful system that creates a magical substitute world. Fox has created a substitute extended family of dolls on a field of playing cards; small guidebooks provides details to the figures in this substitute world but the striking feature of these substitute people is that they are almost featureless and unknown.

There are plans to relocate the Cunningham Dax Collection to a purpose built gallery space in the Department of Neuroscience at Melbourne University’s main campus in lat 2011.


Censorship

“The State does not permit me to use my thoughts to their full value and communicate them to other men… unless they are its own… Otherwise it shuts me up.” – Max Stirner

Censorship is religious, arbitrary and undemocratic; it is therefore a clear injustice to enforce censorship. However, Australian politicians love censorship; they censor the internet, publications, movies, television, political speech, video games, visual arts exhibitions and anything else they want to. The Australian constitution is weak and does not guarantee basic human rights or democracy. To understand the farce that is called “democracy” in Australia see the case of Albert Langer, one of Australia’s many political prisoners.

Censorship is a type of magico-religious thinking; it is the belief that if you remove the words, signs or symbol then you will hinder the thing itself. Not surprisingly censorship is often employed to support religious beliefs or prejudices. The imposition of a magical-religious view on the public by the government is a breach of the public’s right to freedom of religious beliefs and practices. There is no evidence that censorship does any good but there is lots of evidence to indicate that it does a lot of harm; see Marjorie Heins, Not In Front of the Children, “Indecency,” Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth, (New York, 2001).  People who support censorship are willing to harm people for their faith.

There is no logic to censorship – it is an arbitrary act depending on time, place, the person, their history, their language, the media of communications, popular interpretations of religious traditions in the society and the mood of the politicians. It is impossible to definitively determine what will and what will not be censored, making the law arbitrary. Dziga Vertov, “Man with a Movie Camera” is G rated by the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification but contains footage of topless young women on a Russian beach. Show it on children’s television and there would be an uproar in Australia, as happened when breastfeeding mammals, including a human mother and child, were shown. To draw any conclusions about the reasons for individual cases of censorship is to assume that they are not arbitrary and there is some logic to censorship. If you want to have censorship you can either be arbitrary and unfair you can be fair and look ridiculous.

Censorship is anti-democratic in that not all citizens have equal access to information. Any system of censorship proposes special categories of elite citizens and that certain people due to academic or legal qualifications or motherhood, or gender etc. are able to look at material unavailable to other citizens. The class issues at the centre of the legal battle over censorship of Lady Chatterley’s Lover makes this point clear. When I was a post-graduate student at LaTrobe University I took advantage of this loophole in the law and read a few of the restricted books in their collection even though they had nothing to do with my thesis research. If you really believe that some citizens have special qualities that makes their judgement better than others then why allow those others to vote?

Censorship, official or unofficial, is so acceptable in Australia that it is believed to be more important than copyright. To alter an artist’s work without permission, including the covering up parts, is a violation of copyright and the moral rights of the artist. However, these censors care nothing for the moral or legal rights of the artist because they think that censorship is better than all of that. Why respect the opinions of people who do not respect your opinion?

Censorship is the exercise of power by one group over another group to deny them the power of expression. It is religious, arbitrary and undemocratic and people who support censorship should be castigated as dangerous fools and nobody should vote for them.


Street Art around the World

Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat,

Coz summers here and the time is right for painting in the street.

(Apologies to Marvin Gaye/William “Mickey” Stevenson/Ivy Hunter)

Of course the list of cities where they are painting in the street is a bit longer than a few cities in the USA. Is there city in the world where there isn’t graffiti or street art? It would have to be the most repressive of police states and probably affluent without slums or other areas of neglect (e.g. empty factories). Nor could there be any indigenous tradition of wall painting. It is not Singapore, Iran or even the Vatican City (where there is both ancient and modern graffiti). In Tahiti there is Kreative Concept, l’association graffiti de Tahiti, representing Tahitian street artists. The site is in French (try Google translate) but has lots of photos as you might expect that require no translation. Requiring no translation is Cebu Street Art, from Cebu City in the Philippines. Of course we can just forget about war torn states like Somalia where a Canadian soldier reports “graffiti on everything”. I don’t know where there isn’t graffiti and I wouldn’t bet a dollar that any city in the world was graffiti free now.

As I explored the wide world of graffiti and street art I thought that I would to find more regional differences in this the most international of all art movements but there isn’t anything as obvious as that. The internet has made street art influences global even the cultural divisions of languages and alphabets is not significant in street art. The domination of English language in street art is surprising; even some francophone artists use English. It is disappointing that there aren’t more local references evident in global street art. Surely somewhere in the world traditional wall painting has merged with contemporary street art?

I have been reading, or rather looking at because it is ≈98% photographs, Nicholas Ganz Graffiti World – new edition (Thames & Hudson, 2009). I’m glad that I borrowed it from the library rather than buying it. Artists from the Americas and Europe occupy most of the book so the title is misleading. Although it mostly photographs with very short pieces of information about the artist and it does provide some small overviews of street art in various countries. For example, that Eastern bloc countries were late in developing a street art scene because of government bans on the sale of aerosol spray cans. And Nicholas Ganz reports that the first pieces have gone up in Burma and North Korea (p.374) addressing the question that I raised at the start. There are a few parochial features mentioned in Graffiti World like drawing on rail cars in oil chalk in Canada or the strategies of the some street artists from Brazil. I haven’t been able to compare it to the old edition (2004) but the list of Australian and Singaporean artists appears to have not been greatly revised in this new edition.


Bloody Awful

For an artist to produce a bad painting is inevitable, it happens all the time. There is even a Museum of Bad Art in Dedham, Massachusetts. The curator of the Museum of Bad Art, Michael Frank says that bad art “must have been created by someone who was seriously attempting to make an artistic statement – on that has gone horribly awry in either its concept or execution.” And a good artist can still create a bad painting – creating bad art is a risk that every artist must accept.

Gordon Hookey “Blood on the wattle. Blood on the palm” 2009

Gordon Hookey’s oil painting “Blood on the wattle. Blood on the palm” 2009 has gone horribly awry in both its concept and its execution. It is possibly the worst painting created in Australia in 2009 and yet it is in GoMA’s collection. I have, unfortunately, seen a couple of uglier paintings last year, exhibited in artist run spaces but none of these had the size, the lofty ambitions nor the important subject of Hookey’s painting.

“Blood on the wattle. Blood on the palm” is a terrible painting because it should have been Australia’s Geurnica. At approximately 3m x 5m, it almost has the size of Guernica. It is intended to be a great history painting to mark the homicidal, racist and unjust behaviour of the Queensland Police Force on Palm Island in 2004.

In 2005 and Robert Nelson (in a review of Gordon Hookey’s exhibition at Nellie Castan Gallery) wrote: “Gordon Hookey has fun with his medium, his ideas and his background.” ‘Fun’ is one of my favorite words for art and I have no doubt that in the paintings that Nelson was reviewing Hookey was having fun for Hookey is capable of having fun with images, as I’ve seen it in his other paintings. Perhaps the horror and injustice of the events on Palm Island are too awful a situation for fun images.

The painting itself has problems from its design of a V shape dividing the mob of kangaroos from the Tazer wielding force arrayed against them. The mix of literal and metaphorical images has been poorly thought out. There is blood dripping from a palm tree but where it has come from is not clear. The mob of kangaroos is well armed with gun/spears and appears a formidable force in tightly packed wedge. These mutant aggressive kangaroos appear to be something out of the comic book Tank Girl. In the foreground there are few menacing figures with their large sparking tasers; why these figures are not shown in police uniforms is a mystery when they are meant to represent the Queensland Police Force. It appears that the painting avoids representing any of the people or any of the events.

Hookey’s painting crudely illustrative style of painting with its dark outlines and bright colours has its inherent risks – it can easily become ugly. The colour in the painting have been chosen for their illustrative quality, the kangaroos are in a variety of different colours of brown to help define one from another. I presume that the kangaroo’s eyes have been painted blue to make them a different colour from the brown.

The didactic panel at GoMA did much more to explain the horror and injustice on Palm Island than the painting. It did not explain why the artist had chosen to represent the events in this peculiar way. I don’t want to blame Gordon Hookey entirely for this very ugly painting; it is not entirely his responsibility that I was exposed to such an ugly painting, it might be decaying in storage. It is the curators and acquisition committee of GoMA that are responsible for its exhibition. I presume that GoMA purchased it for historic references rather than artistic merit.

It is a shame that the events on Palm Island, yet another death of an Aboriginal man in custody, part of the continuing genocide in Australia, is trivialized with a bad painting. If only Hookey had seen Juan Davila’s scathing versions of Australian history paintings. But the first solo public gallery exhibition of Juan Davila in Brisbane only took place at Griffith University in 2009.  Davila’s history paintings are full of transgressive references to art history and Australian history. They are full of details that build a complex of ideas about the historic event and relate it to the contemporary world. Hookey has simplified the history into a ‘them and us’ position; the painting becomes a simple partisan illustration. The title “Blood on the wattle” is a Henry Lawson reference that falls as flat irony in the face of the current Queensland Labor Party government. This is not a rally to insurrection that the line in Lawson’s poem proposes but a way to support the state’s image of being a liberal democracy by having critical art in GOMA.

“Like charging a regiment of tanks with a defective sanitary device from 1920.” Wm. Burroughs commenting on John Hartsfield’s photomontages.


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